How the famed couple Les Lalanne drew inspiration from their home in the French countryside
‘The supreme art,’ François-Xavier Lalanne once declared, ‘is the art of living.’ He and his wife, Claude Lalanne – known together as ‘Les Lalanne’ – created nature-inspired objects meant to be incorporated into everyday life.
Despite the collective moniker, their collaborations were rare. Instead, they shared a life together, working separately but alongside one another for nearly 50 years at their maison atelier in the rural French town of Ury. It was there that their ideas flourished and they practiced the art of living to the fullest.
On 7 December, over 150 works from the collection of Les Lalanne’s daughter, Marie, will be offered at Christie’s New York in Sculpting Paradise: The Collection of Marie Lalanne. From botanical flatware and an elephant side table to a flock of sculptural sheep, the collection gives insight into life at Ury, the bohemian oasis where two of the 20th century’s most prolific creators found boundless inspiration.
Life at Ury
‘François used to tell me that works of art were meant to be a part of everyday lives,’ wrote Marie Lalanne. ‘…theirs weren’t sacred objects but rather companions for living with which to interact and converse.’ If art was meant to be integrated into the everyday, then Ury was Les Lalanne’s personal testing ground.
Throughout the home and surrounding gardens, one might encounter a bronze bird doubling as a lamp, a glass tabletop suspended atop the horns of a ram or a monumental monkey standing sentry in the courtyard.
‘It was Alice in Lalanne-land,’ wrote the French journalist Jean Cau in a 1967 article for Vogue. ‘Rabbit-oats. Barbecue-harmoniums…forks are decorated with dragonfly wings…Poetry explodes its joyous firecrackers around me.’ These creations, dotted throughout Les Lalanne’s own spaces, were a testament to the livability of their art.
Up until her death in 2019, Claude continued to work out of her studio each day, maintaining a strict schedule and surrounded by family, friends and assistants. In her hands, the vegetation of Ury became the model for her work. In Lanterne Papillons (2018), a chandelier features twisting branches adorned with fluttering butterflies. Petit Banc Crocodile (2016) shows a gilded crocodile entangled in foliage beneath a bench. In each instance, her affinity for nature is underpinned by a whimsical surrealism.
‘François had two workshops,’ noted Darius Metcalf, a member of the Lalanne family and former member of the Atelier Lalanne, ‘one where he sculpted clay and another larger one where he worked with metal.’ A life-size bronze and metal bull sculpture might open to reveal a secret compartment, the space crafted to hold barware, as in Taureau I Bar (1994), or a hippopotamus may transform into a bathtub.
Ury was, in many ways, isolated from society, and yet Les Lalanne’s enduring friendships with artists and close bonds with their four daughters provided a rich community. Nearby were Marcel and Teeny Duchamp as well as Teeny’s daughter from her first marriage, Jackie Matisse, granddaughter of Henri Matisse. Jackie and Claude became close friends, as did their children.
‘They visited each other regularly for mutual advice and support in their creative work,’ recalled Jackie’s children, Catherine Shannon, Robert Monnier, Antoine Monnier and Nicolas Monnier. The atmosphere at Ury, they said, ‘was warm and full of fantasy.’
Beyond the locals, Les Lalanne often entertained their vast circle at home, with close friends and artists paying visits throughout the years. ‘They would always discuss their projects around a good lunch and would sometimes invite gallerists, collectors, family or friends,’ said Metcalf. ‘At night, they often went to Parisian dinners, and the following day, everything would start again.’
'We were no longer simply petites mains working with Claude and François-Xavier,' added Simon Borga, another former member of the Atelier Lalanne. 'We were integrated into a workshop but also their house, their family, their universe. It was a unique experience, just like their oeuvre.'
In Ury, Les Lalanne created a world unto themselves. Amongst the verdant gardens and surrounding countryside, both Claude and François-Xavier found a wellspring of inspiration. ‘They were present and in constant dialogue with nature wherever they went,’ wrote Marie of her parents, and this is evident in their collective oeuvres.
While François-Xavier abstracted his surroundings, refashioning forms through sculpture, Claude distilled the material around her into works of art. Through a process called electroplating, she would bathe items from her garden in sulphuric acid and copper sulphate, which would coat the material in a thin layer of copper before she would refine it by hand into jewellery, sculptures or furniture.
In Très Grand Choupatte (2014), Claude melds both the animal and vegetable worlds of her garden using bronze. A head of cabbage (chou) is perched atop the legs of a chicken (pattes), its hybridity underscoring the facts of nature we take for granted. One of her most famed creations, the sculpture embodies both her whimsical sense of humour and unique way of seeing the world.
In the works of François-Xavier, we see nature not suspended in bronze but adapted to it, its edges smoothed and textures softened. He takes the form of an animal and remakes it into something else entirely. In Petit Chien Héroïque II (Loulou) (2002), a small dog, modelled after one of their dogs, balances on its hind legs. Through its pose, François-Xavier elevates the dog to a higher form, embodying the heroism proclaimed in the title.
This is also true in Les Trois Grands Moutons de Peter (2007). Here three sheep — one ewe and two rams — are rendered in gilt bronze. Made grand under François-Xavier’s gaze, the commonplace animals of Ury's countryside become dynamic objects of importance.
Above all, the works of Les Lalanne defy categorization. They exist outside of time, containing echoes of antiquity and nods to surrealism while moving beyond any one movement or label. In this way the couple pushed the boundaries of what is considered art, creating objects not merely meant to be looked at and admired but rooted in our daily existence.
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